This Is New York: Keith Cohen, Searching for the Lost Art of Baguette Baking

By Amelia Pang, Epoch Times
April 12, 2014 6:52 am Last Updated: April 20, 2014 7:02 pm

NEW YORK—Keith Cohen, the owner of Orwasher’s Bakery, treasures the past in a very personal way. An antique cash register that once belonged to his grandfather rests in the corner of the back office. He majored in history at SUNY Stony Brook. Instead of starting a business from scratch, in 2007 Cohen bought one of the oldest bakeries in Manhattan for $1.5 million. 

“This bakery is one of the few 98-year-old bakeries that exist today in the city,” he said. “It was like having a piece of history in New York. I thought that this was an important part of me, going out on my own and being a baker.”

“I’m a very nostalgic person,” he added. 

Abraham Orwasher, an Eastern European immigrant, founded the Old World bakery in 1916. Nestled in a quiet block a few streets south of Gracie Mansion, the bakery is a remnant of Yorkville’s bygone immigrant community. 

Today, the bakery’s cabinets and counters are painted a homey pastel yellow. In the back room, a dry erase board records Yelp compliments on staff friendliness. Cohen, 43, is adapting to the times by expanding the bakery’s selection from Eastern European breads to other local artisan breads, such as artisan wine breads made from the nectar of Channing Daughters Vineyard in Long Island. 

Cohen arrives at the Bronx Orwasher location every morning at 7:30 a.m., where the daily baking occurs in a 100-year-old oven. Breads are delivered fresh at noon every day. 

Childhood Memories

Cohen just didn’t want to own the Upper East Side’s oldest bakery. For years, he obsessed over the need to bake authentic baguettes in New York City. He felt compelled to search for original baguette baking techniques. 

“The baguette is the most elusive bread to make correctly, yet it is so simple,” Cohen said. “People know how to master wonderfully these complicated breads, but what about the baguette?”

This desire stems from childhood memories with his grandfather. Cohen recalls being hauled in a wagon with the groceries after shopping with his grandfather, a kosher butcher. Before he and his grandfather got home, Cohen had already finished most of the baguettes. 

baguette

(Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

cash

Mission Baguette 

“It seems very simple, yet none of us, collectively, had mastered the French baguette [in New York],” he said. “To some extent, the French bakers also diluted the original recipes.”

So he reached out to Steven Kaplan, a Cornell history professor who specializes in the history of French bread. Together, they decided go to France in July last year to learn a thing or two about the authentic tradition of baguette baking. 

They trained vigorously at mills with baguette experts such as Alexandre Viron, Retrodor’s miller. They made 500 to 1,200 baguettes a day during their 10-day stay. 

They also spent some time in a retail bakery, taking in how the French produce their products in various environments. Cohen felt inspired by the zeal of the French bakers and their attention to detail.

When the two returned to the States, they tried to reproduce baguettes the way they had learned in every aspect of the process. They now even import all of their baguette flour from France. 

Although he was particular about every step in the baking process, Cohen could not control the weather. He made his first baguette in the city during last summer’s heat waves. “The weather is a big part of baking,” he said. “When we finally succeeded, it was a moment of elation. We learned how to make baguettes in an antiquated fashion, and that’s suitable for our bakery.”

According to Cohen, what distinguishes an authentic baguette is its fermentation. “You have the aroma of the chestnut and the cinnamon, but you want to bring out the fermentation,” he said. “It’s a floral taste.”

Their hard work brought happy results. Food blog Serious Eats dubbed Orwasher’s as the bakery with the best baguette in the city. “From the inside out, this loaf nails the key qualities of a classic baguette.”

Cohen has two children, a 10-year-old and a 9-year-old, and so far neither has expressed interest in taking over the business. 

Orwasher’s may not continue as a Cohen family-run business yet, but perhaps the Cohen children will have their version of a wagon ride while eating baquettes and they may change their minds. For now, the bakery has made its mark with an authentic version of the French baguette and, in its production, preserved a piece of old New York. 

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